The Minnesota Varsity League just completed its fourth year as the state's premier high school e-sports league. More than 1,000 boys and girls participated for their high schools, 260 of them in the state championships. Five teams won state titles.

The numbers added up to the league's most successful year.

Those involved say the league's strength goes beyond those numbers.

"These are kids who have been traditionally underrepresented," said Jake Utities, a former computer science teacher at St. Louis Park who stepped away from teaching to become the director of the Minnesota Varsity League (MNVL). "Kids come to me all the time and say, 'Nobody ever paid attention to me.' They've always been excluded. They don't get noticed at pep rallies. They were often in the halls alone. Now, with e-sports, you see them finally feeling like they belong. They're feeling validation for their hobby and their passion."

State championships were settled last weekend in the studios of Wisdom Gaming on the fourth floor at Mall of America, showcasing one of the nation's fastest-growing segments of high school competition.

Teams in the league, which is not affiliated with the Minnesota State High School League that governs high school activities in the state, have cropped up across Minnesota, with highly successful ones from Apple Valley, Blaine, Minneapolis South and St. Louis Park. They compete on five platforms: Super Smash Brothers, Minecraft Bed Wars, Valorant, Rocket League and the most popular and competitive, League of Legends.

Suddenly, true to their school

Before joining an e-sports team, Minnetonka senior Charles Kensicki didn't do much around school, he admits.

"I was never really into sports or anything like that. I never owned any Minnetonka shirts or was interested in repping the school," said Kensicki, captain of Minnetonka's Valorant team. "But once I started doing this, it feels really cool to be able to represent the school."

It took one season, Kensicki said, for his team to get fully serious. Trash-talking, or in this case trash-messaging, was set aside after that. "This is our second season with an in-person tournament," he said. "We placed third last season. So now that novelty's kind of worn off and we're here to win."

Trolling is generally kept to a minimum anyway. "The rules are pretty strict, and I have stricter rules than most," Utities said. "I want this to be a positive community where everybody feels welcome."

Kensicki, who set up the strategies for Minnetonka and played some of the characters, was confident about his team, and his optimism was well-founded. Minnetonka defeated Apple Valley to win the Valorant title.

What it is and isn't

Among the biggest hurdles e-sports competitors face are misconceptions and attitudes about computer gaming.

Competitors admit convincing family of e-sports' worth takes up their time.

"My mother is very supportive," said Gabriel Fink, a St. Louis Park sophomore Minecraft player. "My father not quite as much. He thinks I should be getting more outdoor exercise. Any minute not spent outside is a wasted minute."

Fink said video screens "are my life," but he acknowledges his father's opinion: "I know what he's saying. Exercise is important. That's one of the biggest problems with gaming: Not getting enough."

Todd Rolfson was at the Wisdom studios for the state championships, supporting his son, a Minecraft devotee, as he and his teammate advanced to the semifinals.

Rolfson has a wrestling background and coached his son in the sport growing up. When he learned his son had joined the Blaine e-sports team, his immediate reaction was laced with skepticism.

"I had to tease him a little bit. 'It's not a sport if you're not sweating' kind of thing," Rolfson said. "But any time your kid is in anything, you're excited about it."

Now that his son has been involved for three seasons, Rolfson said he finds the competition every bit as intense as watching a wrestling match.

"I get just as charged up watching this," he said.

A significant part of Utities' work is flushing away age-old beliefs, especially that video gaming is a waste of time. Gaming has tentacles in many disciplines, he pointed out.

"E-sports is not just about playing games you love," he said. "It prepares you for a lot of different jobs: technical, broadcasting, development, creative."

The business of gaming

E-sports represents one of the fastest-growing segments in the video game industry. According to the data company Statista, e-sports generated more than $240 million in revenue in the United States in 2021 and about $360 million in China.

E-sports competitions are broadcast internationally online on the Twitch platform and draw viewership that rivals Super Bowls.

The competition can be lucrative. Utities mentioned a local 14-year-old who goes by the nickname Cronnn and is being wooed by some of the top professional gaming teams in the world.

"He could make, like, $40,000 at month," he said. "We have a little LeBron James sitting right here in our own backyard. Pretty soon, he'll probably be making more than any of us."

Champions, over and over

Minneapolis South's Minecraft Bed Wars team goes by the nickname Dos Tigres. It's Spanish for "two tigers," tying to the school's official nickname of Tigers.

Except there are four of them.

It's neither facetious nor ironic. They split into teams of two for competition.

Or skip the nickname and just call them undefeated. In four competitive seasons, Dos Tigres have never lost a competition. One pair or the other has always reigned.

Perhaps it's the way they dress. While other gamers wear street clothes or team jerseys, Dos Tigres aim for style, wearing suits and sportscoats.

"Look good, play good," said Jasper Priest, who teamed with Miles Dripps to take another Minecraft title at the state championships.

Teammates Sam Clasen and Max Vossen stood nearby. The four of them practice incessantly to reach championship level. Priest and Dripps were the better team at the state championships, but all four basked in the victory.

"They wouldn't have gotten here without us," Clasen said.

Called after their victory "the most successful team in MNVL history," Dos Tigres planned to head back to South High School, hopefully to accolades from classmates. They don't expect much more.

"Maybe a morning announcement for a couple of days" Priest said. "That's about all."

"I wish they'd put our trophies out," Dripps said. "They're all in one teacher's room. We historically don't win championships at South. We're kind of breaking barriers."

But they're not ready to whoop it up. There's still one championship to go. The MNVL holds a spring league. Dos Tigres have their sights set on winning that one, too.

"This is big," Dripps said, "but there's one more to go. Once we get five, we can celebrate. We'll be ready."